It’s tough to capture the essence of Casa Bonita. But the artist’s participating in Next Gallery’s annual Casa Bonita Art Show have managed to show off what makes the pink palace special in inspiring and surprising ways.
“It’s just what we needed,” says Next Gallery artist Betsy $B Rudolph, who founded the show in the spring of 2018, after Next moved from the Navajo Street Arts District to its current West Colfax Avenue location, one block over from Casa Bonita. Rudolph thought it would just be a one-off exhibition. But after putting out an open call for Coloradans of any age to submit their odes to iconic Lakewood restaurant, she got more interest than expected “We had people who had never submitted to an art show before. It felt, I think, approachable,” Rudolph says. “And people loved it.”
Now in its fifth year, the showcase, which opens on February 18 and runs through March 6, has become a tradition of its own, even as Casa Bonita faced a tumultuous past two years, including the Mexican eatery’s previous owners shuttering the space indefinitely early in the pandemic. The iconic location was later bought by Colorado-born South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. With the restaurant tentatively slated to reopen this summer, anticipation is high.
Rudolph says she could sense that in this year’s submissions, as artists produced whimsical pieces that capture fond memories of the place. (The theme is Mi Casa es Su Casa.) “You can’t believe it. Like, honestly, you can’t,” Rudolph says. “Just when you think there’s no more ideas, you’re like, What?!” Over the years, she recalls hundreds of artists of all ages submitting everything from Cheese Whiz fountains to Lego replicas of that famous fuschia facade.
To get a sense of what makes the show so fun, we asked some of the artists to explain their work—which is also available for purchase at the show—and the Casa Bonita–related memories that inspired it.
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“See: Gorilla Escape” by Liz Cooper, 54
Artist location: Thousand Oaks, California
Artist profession: Stay-at-home mom
On Casa Bonita: “Denver’s my home in my heart. So I remember when Costa Bonita opened, and I remember going there as a kid with my parents and have really good memories of that. The line would go all the way out the door, and we’d wait for what seemed like a long time to go in. And anytime somebody came from out of town, it was kind of a fun trip or an icebreaker.”
On the art: “I kind of liked the seriousness of such a silly subject matter—you know, the guy in the gorilla suit. I like how the shadows made it really dramatic and somehow…I don’t want to say threatening. Not threatening, but a little bit more exciting and more dangerous than it really is. When you’re a little kid, and you see the gunfight on the waterfall or the gorilla capture (he’s pounding his chest and stuff) it’s thrilling in a dangerous way.”
“Casa Bonita After Hours: Looking for Leftovers” by Laura Kedro, 43
Artist location: Northglenn, Colorado
Artist profession: Animation
On Casa Bonita: “I spent a lot of time going to birthday parties and other celebrations at Casa Bonita because back when I was a kid, there weren’t that many places [for that] that I remember in the area. It was definitely a unique place. If you go back there, then all the memories come back. It always smells like chlorine.”
On the art: “Do you remember Black Bart’s cave? There’s that kind of horrifying dragon there, and you have to go into its mouth. I love that dragon, because when I was, I don’t know, like four or five years old, my dad dragged me into that cave, and I didn’t want to go. It’s a good memory now, but I think it’s really affected a lot of my art. I think a lot of that comes from being influenced by Casa Bonita and the aesthetic of that restaurant. It has kind of that more humorous and youthful [aspect], but it also has that really terrifying, horror aspect to it. With the restaurant being closed, I thought, Wouldn’t it be interesting if there actually were, like, some ghost stories or haunting stories about things that happen there when it’s not so loud, and when there isn’t all that energy present? So, I wanted to show that this dragon is actually alive, and it comes to life when no one’s there.”
“The Grotto Desk Fountain and Zen Garden” by Ekaterina Jorgensen, 51
Artist location: Edgewater, Colorado
Artist profession: Montessori elementary teacher
On Casa Bonita: “Being a diver in the grotto at Casa Bonita is, like, the most badass thing you could ever do or be. I just remember being little, thinking that was the coolest thing in the world. Even now, I mean, are there any restaurants that have divers? Maybe in Vegas. But in our little cow town here? It’s just so amazing to have something like that, and I’m just so glad it’s being preserved because it really is one of a kind.”
On the Art: “I decided that I would pay homage to the grotto, which is the cliff diving area. Which most people do, but I just was like, How can people take a little piece of Casa Bonita home with them that’s more than just, like, a T-shirt, or a margarita glass? So I created a desktop grotto fountain, with a pink sands Zen Garden on the side.”
“A New Dawn” by Jeff Lee, 42
Artist location: Long Beach, California
Artist profession: Scenic artist at Knott’s Berry Farm theme park
On Casa Bonita: “When my friend and I were moving from Los Angeles to New York, we stopped in Denver, and a friend who lives there said, “Oh, you have to go to Casa Bonita, it’s right up your alley.” We did, and it was everything I love about that kind of stuff. I’ve only been twice—I went again later when I came to visit our friends. There’s cliff divers, and a gorilla that runs around. I love highly themed restaurants and highly themed spaces, especially when there’s things for you to explore, like nooks and crannies and caves.”
On the Art: “In theme park shows I’ve done, you have, like, an architectural feature with some sort of fun sky and clouds behind it. So that’s kind of what I did for this [painting]. The sunrise painting sort of represents the new dawn of restaurants coming out of the pandemic, and people thinking of it as, like, a new start for life in general. I wanted to highlight things that come to me as being the typical Casa Bonita features.”